Sudan's disappeared: lives lost in the crossfire

As the world watches Khartoum's gathering war with South Sudan, Jared Ferrie meets the forgotten victims within its own borders

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The Independent Online

Issa Daffala Sobahi was working as a guard at the home of an opposition politician in Sudan's Blue Nile state when, last September, government soldiers came for him. He and the cook saw four cars pull up, bristling with soldiers. When the cook tried to run, one of them opened fire.

"The only thing I saw after they shot him was blood. Then they threw me on the ground and handcuffed me," Mr Sobahi says from Bunj, a town in South Sudan, across the recently created border. It was here he eventually sought refuge.

Recalling his detention last year, Mr Sobahi says soldiers beat him on the way to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) headquarters in Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile state, where he was imprisoned. There, he said, he witnessed two incidents he can't shake from his memory. He saw soldiers try to wrench a baby from its mother, telling her she wasn't a "real" Muslim and was unfit to take care of her child. When she resisted, he said, a soldier shot both of them.

Mr Sobahi – who escaped – also watched as soldiers tied two men by their feet to a vehicle and dragged them around the yard before tying them to a tree. "They poured gasoline on them and the empty container they put above them and burned it so the plastic dropped on them," he claimed. "They were screaming and they died."

Mr Sobahi and hundreds of others were rounded up in a sweep against suspected rebels in Damazin and other towns in early September. The rebels were once part of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), which fought Khartoum in the two-decade civil war that led to South Sudan's independence last July.

When the South seceded last year, two divisions of the movement's armed wing were left in the Sudanese states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. They amended their name to Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement, North (SPLM-N), and declared themselves a separate political party in Sudan. Fighting broke out in June in South Kordofan, where Khartoum was accused of rigging an election.

The conflict spread to neighbouring Blue Nile when Khartoum ousted its elected governor, Malik Agar, last September, replacing him with a military commander.

Government ministers in Khartoum now accuse their counterparts in South Sudan of supporting the insurgencies in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

More than 200 people from Blue Nile are still being detained or are missing, according to lawyers who spoke to Human Rights Watch. In response, Khartoum said it was holding only 13 rebels.

The SAF also stands accused of killing unarmed civilians. A teacher from the town of Bau said he saw soldiers gun down 10 residents in December. In el-Silek village, an SPLM-N official said he found the tortured and executed bodies of six civilian members of the SPLM-N.

"These alleged crimes constitute violations of human rights law and could also qualify as war crimes, but further investigation is needed..." said Jehanne Henry, of Human Rights Watch. Khartoum says it has set up an independent commission to look into abuses and has found no basis for such reports.

"The government considers the allegations in this case propaganda from the (rebels) without any evidence," a government official said. The government is also heavily reliant on aerial bombing using transport aircraft. Often bombs are simply rolled out of the cargo bay doors, a strategy that violates international law as the indiscriminate nature of the bombing inherently puts civilians at risk.

Omar Idris says his village of Yabous Kubri was bombed last September. "I was with my donkey looking for water. The plane came... It just started bombing and the donkey was immediately killed and, as you see, I was hurt in my hand and my chest as well," he said.

A Sudanese government official countered: "Military operations are targeted at the rebels and their camps, which are mostly in the mountains."

But travelling through the flatlands of southern Blue Nile state tells a different story. The landscape is pockmarked with craters, villages stand empty, marketplaces are silent and schools have been shuttered. More than 100,000 people have fled into refugee camps in South Sudan and Ethiopia. About 100,000 more are stranded inside Blue Nile. Many – including Mr Idris – live in forests where they cannot be seen from the air.

The government denies the bombing has caused a mass exodus. "The population density of Blue Nile state is not very high," said a spokesman. Whether that was true before the war began, it's certainly the case now after seven months of bombing.